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Independent Voters Have the Final, and Future, Say

Independent Voters Have the Final, and Future, Say

December 2022

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

An unpopular Democratic president and economic pessimism were shaping up to be key ingredients for midterm success for Republicans — until independent voters stepped in.

Independent voters provided the biggest surprise of 2022. Even as they were primed for change, independent voters didn’t punish Democratic candidates for President Joe Biden’s performance and were uncomfortable with GOP nominees in key races. That helped Democrats hold the Senate and left Republicans with a slim majority in the House.

Even though Republicans won the House majority, there should be some soul-searching within the party since it’s the third consecutive cycle that independent voters chose Democrats.

The Big Picture

At the outset, it’s fair to ask, who are independent voters? In this case, they are self-described independents, which means they could be anything from truly swing voters to staunch progressives disappointed by the Democratic Party to MAGA supporters who are disgusted with the GOP.

While there are some stories and evidence of an ascendant independent bloc, independent voters made up about the same share of the electorate in 2022 (31%) as they did in the 2018 midterms (30%). They made up 26% of the vote in the 2020 presidential race.

Typically, independent voters break decisively against an unpopular president’s party in midterm elections. But that’s not how 2022 played out.

Independent voters supported Democratic candidates over Republican candidates, 49% to 47%, according to the exit poll by Edison Research for CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS. According to the AP VoteCast survey for The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, independents supported Democrats over Republicans, 42% to 38%.

Independent voters supported Biden over President Donald Trump, 54% to 41%, in 2020, and they chose Democratic candidates 54% to 42% in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the traditional exit polls.

The 2-point margin for Democrats this year was remarkable. Before Democrats’ 12-point edge among independent voters in 2018, Republicans won those voters by 12 points in 2014 and 16 points in 2010 with Barack Obama as president. Democrats won independent voters by 18 points in 2006 with George W. Bush in the White House, and, going further back, Republicans won them by 14 points in 1994 during Bill Clinton’s first term. All of those midterm cycles featured various sizes of waves, which makes the 2022 result striking.

A majority of voters in 2022 disapproved of the job Biden was doing and had an unfavorable rating of the president. Seventy-four percent (74%) of voters said they were either angry or dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country, and 76% said the condition of the nation’s economy was poor or not good.

With those conditions, Republicans have to ask themselves why they couldn’t close the deal with independent voters. Voters were looking for change and yet ultimately stuck with the status quo in most cases.

No U.S. senator lost their seat for the first time in history. Just one sitting governor failed to win reelection. And only nine House incumbents lost in the general election, even though an average of 29 House incumbents have lost reelection in each general election cycle going back to 1916.

There is a cyclical pattern to politics. Republicans won independent voters in four consecutive cycles from 2010 to 2016, including Mitt Romney winning them by 5 points in 2012, but that was with a Democrat in the White House. That’s why 2022 was the opportunity for Republicans to get back to power. Instead, they lost ground in the Senate and fell far short of average midterm gains in the House.

The national exit poll numbers among independent voters mean it’s hard for Republicans to blame individual candidates, even though they had weak nominees in some key races. Although it’s difficult to accurately diagnose the motivations of independent voters, there has to be a problem with the overall GOP brand. Whether because of Trump, other provocative Republican politicians, actions by GOP-led states to eliminate all access to legal abortion, or something else, independent voters showed reluctance to vote GOP.

Of course voters aren’t in love with Democrats. But they were comfortable enough with them to keep most Democrats in charge, even during a period of uncertainty.

Individual Races

While Republican candidates underperformed among independent voters nationally, Trump’s candidates did even worse.

Plenty of blame for the Senate losses has been laid at the feet of the candidates Trump guided through the primary. And that criticism is warranted based on their performance in the general election.

While independents nationally voted for Democratic candidates by just 2 points, they supported Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly over Republican challenger Blake Masters by 16 points, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock over Republican Herschel Walker by 11 points (in the Nov. 8 election), and, for senator from Pennsylvania, John Fetterman over Republican Mehmet Oz by a whopping 20 points.

In contrast, former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt had Trump’s endorsement for senator but also ran a more traditional campaign and was the only Republican nominee who had won a statewide race before. He lost independent voters by just 3 points to Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and fell short in the overall race by less than 1 point — the closest result of the cycle.

Some of Trump’s high-profile candidates for governor struggled with independent voters as well. Kari Lake lost them by 7 points in Arizona, Tudor Dixon lost them by 13 points in Michigan, and Doug Mastriano lost them by 31 points in Pennsylvania.

Independent voters were also decisive in Wisconsin, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes only broke even with them against GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, while Gov. Tony Evers won them by 4 points. Barnes’ underperformance, compared with Evers and Democrats nationally, was probably enough for him to fall short by 1 point against the Republican.

It might go without saying, but independent voters will have a critical role in future elections. In 2022, partisanship reigned. Democratic voters supported Democratic candidates 96% to 3%, and Republican voters supported GOP candidates 96% to 3%. There’s no reason to believe that dynamic will change anytime soon.

That means, unless one party is banking on turning out its base disproportionately higher compared with the other side, or on the other party’s base being depressed, a majority party will have to win over the independents.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is [email protected]. 

Typically, independent voters break decisively against an unpopular president’s party in midterm elections. But that’s not how 2022 played out.

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